Champaign schools implement coding curriculum

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Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess.org

Kevin Zhu shows off some of his coding in his third grade class at Kenwood Elementary School in Champaign on November 7.

Kindergartners in Champaign are expected to learn reading, writing and now, coding.

Champaign Unit 4 Schools have implemented a curriculum based around coding, beginning in kindergarten and going all the way up through high school. The students have designated time each week to learn how to code through the programming language Scratch.

George Reese, the director of the Office for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education at the University of Illinois, helps bring research into practice in Unit 4 schools. Through this work, Reese found that student’s reactions to the new curriculum are positive.

“Kids can create things for other kids. They can create games that keep score and quizzes for each other. It helps make a dry content a little more interesting. They are naturally engaged in it,” Reese said.

Despite the positive student reaction, the Scratch program has received some criticism for not being marketable in a job search. Companies do not use this specific coding program in work environments. The program is currently being used as a starting point for beginners, Reese said.

Other common criticisms include the element of added distraction with the introduction of devices. Emily Schmit, director of communications for Unit 4 schools, says that this has not been an issue at the elementary level.

“With the elementary students, it is presented as another classroom rule. It can be distracting at the middle and high school level but it is now being built into the curriculum. We are acknowledging that they have these devices and making them a learning technology,” Schmit said.

Concerns with technology

Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess.org

Tabitha Dunn works with Alex Hawthorne in her class at Kenwood Elementary School in Champaign on November 7.

Vice President of the Champaign Parent Teacher Association Council and parent to three daughters, Sujata Dey-Koontz is in favor of the implementation of technology and coding within the school system, but she thinks that technology can harm social interaction among children outside of the classroom.

“This has been a growing mental and emotional pain. Most young people don’t understand how to be authentic. Being nice is a societal propriety. The genuine emotion attached to actions are lost,” Dey-Koontz said.

Additionally, Dey-Koontz finds that an added importance is given to technological objects such as iPhones. Having different types of cell phones brings an opportunity for children to compare to one another and invites bullying, she said.

“It shouldn’t be about the new Samsung or the iPhone. The cell phones should be utilized as a tool. It’s about need. It’s the same as having a car. Is it a Range Rover or a Chevrolet? They do the same job,” Dey-Koontz said.

These common concerns inside and outside of the classroom aren’t necessarily on Reese’s radar. Instead, he fears that coding will lose its appeal in the future. He said that this has already happened with subjects like mathematics.

“A disaster would be if we turned coding into a school subject that kids dread doing. We are at a moment now where kids look forward to doing it. If ten years from now it’s a school subject that is dreaded, we will have really failed,” Reese said.

The Scratch program is considered a low floor, high ceiling program according to Reese. This means that the program is user-friendly and easy to begin, while still offering opportunities for high skill level work.

Schmit said that teaching coding this way in school shows kids how to be a part of building technology. Students begin learning how to code in kindergarten.

The Scratch program is set up to work like a game, making it engaging for students. Despite student’s different goals and career aspirations, most children are interested in learning how to code.

“It seems as though most kids feel an enjoyment with coding. Whether or not they see themselves as software designers. Coding seems intrinsically interesting,” Reese said.

Teachers excited about opportunities

Karenna Hurst works on coding in her third grade class at Kenwood Elementary School in Champaign on November 7.

Teachers are also excited about the coding programming language, according to Schmit. Workshops are held over the summer to show teachers how to use the program. While using the Scratch system in class, technology coaches are available to assist the students and teachers.

The teaching of coding began after the introduction of chrome books. Champaign Unit 4 schools received a grant of $275,250 from the Illinois State Board of Education for laptop computers in 2011, according to a press release. Today, technology advancements are funded through the yearly state budget.

The funds within the state budget are broken down into two sides. One side includes network security, information technology and devices themselves. The other side of the budget covers digital assessment tools.

All students currently have access to chrome book laptop computers. The computers travel through classrooms on carts based on need. By the end of 2018, all students grades two through five will have their own devices, according to Schmit.

Additionally, Champaign Unit 4 schools have implemented a five year technology plan. The plan includes a goal of a 1:1 device ratio, take home devices for high school level students and Internet access for all students.

This technology plan is based off of a school technology needs assessment that was introduced in 2015, with a goals for all students start “gaining knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to direct their lives, improve a diverse society, and excel in a changing world by providing dynamic, resource ­rich learning environments and experiences,” the report said.